By the early 20th century, two groups had become prevalent in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Informally called suffragists and the suffragettes, both aimed to secure women’s right to vote – though they had very different approaches.


What was the difference between suffragists and suffragettes?

A key difference between suffragists and suffragettes is that while the suffragists used largely peaceful methods such as lobbying, the suffragettes weren’t afraid to employ militant tactics.

These more extreme actions included smashing windows and committing arson – of which the suffragists vehemently disapproved.

Despite this, the two groups were often conflated during the 20th century and can still be today.

Deeds not Words: the suffragette story

Member exclusive | The suffragettes' campaign for equal rights would see them not just rallying crowds with speeches and marching on the streets, but setting fire to politicians’ homes and planting bombs in public places. Find out more in our podcast series: Deeds Not Words.

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Who were the suffragists?

The women’s suffrage movement in the UK emerged from a growing frustration among women who were denied the right to vote, especially as Reform Acts between the 1860s and the 1880s had expanded the number of men who could do so.

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In 1897, this frustration coalesced into action, with the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the NUWSS – also known as the suffragists – aimed to achieve voting rights for women through peaceful means.

A portrait of Millicent Fawcett.
A portrait of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fawcett and her largely middle-class membership of over 50,000 people believed that demonstrating women’s respectability and responsibility through non-violent lobbying would convince Parliament to grant them the vote.

“The suffragists were always very respectable,” says historian Jad Adams on the HistoryExtra podcast series Deeds not Words. “They were concerned that everything should be done very properly. They were not a very activist organisation.”

As the 20th century began, dissatisfaction with the slow progress of the suffragists’ approach led to a more radical faction within the movement – they would become the suffragettes.

Did suffragists or suffragettes come first?

Emmeline Pankhurst is restrained by a policeman.
Emmeline Pankhurst is restrained by a policeman. (Photo by Getty)

The suffragists were formed first, but in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst split from the group and founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), advocating for a more militant strategy under the slogan ‘Deeds, not words’.

With the founding of the WSPU the campaign entered a new era.

“There really has been this storm in the last decade of the 19th century where progress has been promised, but not realised,” historian Fern Riddell says on the HistoryExtra podcast series Deeds not Words, talking about the motivations of the WSPU. “There needs to be a change. There needs to be something more than the traditional mode of just asking.”

These women, willing to break from the mould and do anything to achieve the vote, became known as the suffragettes.

Where did the label ‘suffragettes’ come from?

The term ‘suffragettes’ was coined by the Daily Mail in 1906. Intended as a derogatory term – with the suffix ‘-ette’ denoting something small in size – it aimed to minimise the growing militance of the group.

Instead of resisting the label, the suffragettes embraced it, using it to distinguish their more aggressive tactics from the more peaceful members of the suffragists.

What were the suffragettes’ tactics?

Where the suffragists were peaceful, the suffragettes were more militant.

The turning point for this militancy came in 1905 when Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the WSPU) and Annie Kenney (a working-class leader in the WSPU) were imprisoned for obstruction, following their interruption of a Liberal Party meeting with questions about women’s suffrage. Christabel was also found guilty of assault, for spitting at a policeman.

Choosing prison rather than paying a fine brought much attention to their cause, which inspired more acts of civil disobedience.

These actions led to an increase in imprisonments, where many suffragettes resorted to hunger strikes to protest their treatment. One such suffragette, Nellie Hall, was force-fed 137 times while in prison. Another, Mary Richardson, described one of her experiences in 1914:

“They fed me five weeks by the nose and at the end of that time my nose what they called ‘bit’ the tube, and it would not pass into the throat even though they bent it and twisted it into all kinds of shapes. Instead, it went up to the top of my nose and seemed to pierce my eyes… Then they forced my mouth open by inserting their fingers and cutting my gums… and the lining of my cheeks… when I was blind and mad with pain they drove in two large gags. Then the tubes followed and they pressed my tongue down with their fingers and pinched my nose to weaken the natural, and also the purposeful, resistance of my throat.”

This cruel ordeal was addressed with the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.

The Cat and Mouse Act suffragette poster.
The Cat and Mouse Act suffragette poster. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The name came from the nature of the act, which allowed for the release of female prisoners when they became too weak from hunger, followed by their re-arrest upon recovery. Emmeline Pankhurst was jailed and released 12 times following this pattern.

While it prolonged the ordeal for suffragettes, June Purvis explains that it also benefitted the WSPU’s efforts: “It was also a publicity gift to the WSPU since many ‘mice’ skilfully evaded re-arrest, dramatically appearing at a meeting. A widely circulated WSPU poster of a large ginger cat (above) bearing his bloodied teeth – the limp, injured body of the small suffragette in his mouth – vividly portrayed the brutality of it all.”

Was there tension between suffragists and suffragettes?

Suffragists advertising that they are law abiding
Suffragists advertising that they are law abiding, so as to distinguish themselves from the militancy of the suffragettes. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Despite their common goal of securing women’s right to vote, suffragists and suffragettes often found themselves at odds over methods.

Many of the public failed to distinguish between the two groups in their criticism; due to this, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and other suffragists believed that the suffragettes undermined their campaign.

To distance themselves from their more militant counterparts, the suffragists organised a march of over 50,000 women to London in 1913.

The Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage, as it was known, was a nationwide five-week-long march that culminated in a rally in Hyde Park. Though it did not result in immediate constitutional change, it helped sway both public and parliamentary opinion towards the suffrage cause.

Who won the women’s right to vote – the suffragists or the suffragettes?

Both the suffragists and suffragettes deserve recognition for their contributions to the cause of women’s suffrage.

The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted suffrage to women over 30 – as long as they were either owners of property which had a value of at least £5, or married to owners of property. All British women over the age of 21 were not granted the right to vote in political elections until 1928. But who should we thank for this feat?


While the suffragists laid the groundwork through years of steady, respectful campaigning, the suffragettes ensured the issue could not be ignored, using their militant tactics to keep it in the public and political spotlight.


Lauren GoodDigital Content Producer, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital content producer at HistoryExtra. She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies.